Jim Dale got his professional start in British music hall. It was the early 1950s, and the form, battered by movies and radio, was about to receive its death blow from rock ’n’ roll. But Dale, who wrote and performs this genial autobiographical show, Just Jim Dale, at the Roundabout’s off-Broadway space, was among the last generation to be trained in the music-hall tradition, which demanded skills in comedy, singing, and dancing – the all-round talents that were once a given for entertainers.
If today’s stars are more specialised – have you ever heard Rihanna or Beyoncé try to tell a joke? – the ghosts of their versatile antecedents are evocatively summoned here. Dale shares some of the hoariest routines, which trade on the naughty double entendres of the Carry On films, which bolstered Dale’s reputation in the 1960s. He also encourages the audience to indulge in the kind of sing-along behaviour that was a music-hall staple. The patrons at my performance were surprisingly game, although the man behind me had one of those loud, insistent voices that ruins hymn-singing at Sunday-morning services.
Under the direction of Richard Maltby Jr, and with a black-and-white image of a music hall as a backdrop, Dale spends the first half of this 100-minute, interval-free evening on his feet. As a boy studying dance, or as a young man imbibing comedy, his movement would have been termed elastic; now, at the age of 78, it must be called spry. It is still impressively flexible: Dale can demonstrate the pratfalls of his early days with spectacular flourish. And he still carries a juvenile’s eagerness – the enthusiasm that led him out of his home town of Rothwell, Northamptonshire (in every way the “dead centre” of England, says Dale).
The stage memoir flounders a bit around two-thirds through. Dale reveals little personal sorrow, so once we have heard about his career in early rock ’n’ roll and his triumph on Broadway in 1980’s Barnum, the narrative of the good times conveys dwindling emotion.
However, he still holds an ace: his Harry Potter experience. He narrated the American version of J.K. Rowling’s saga, which, in my family at least, is preferred to Stephen Fry’s British version. As Dale tells us about some of the real-life people who inspired his more-than-200 “Potter” voices, we are reminded again of the tremendous versatility of his music-hall formation. Wizardry indeed.